So you need a smartphone, and you need it now. Maybe it’s your first phone, maybe your contract is up for renewal, or maybe you just dropped the last one in the toilet. Fear not. There are a lot of good options out there and we’ve got a quick guide about how to choose a smartphone that should help you out.
For a more in-depth look at what the cell phone market has to offer, take a look at our cell phone reviews and our guides for the best cell phones, best Android phones, best BlackBerry phones, best Windows phones, best AT&T phones, best Sprint phones, best T-Mobile phones, and best Verizon phones.
1. Figure out what your needs are
Do you need a phone with a large screen, small screen, a physical keyboard? Maybe you absolutely need BB messenger, Exchange support, or a phone with an awesomecamera. Figure out what matters most to you and write it down. Your decisions here will affect everything that is to come.
2. Choose an operating system
There are four main smartphone choices today: Android, BlackBerry, iOS, and Windows Phone. Brief descriptions of each are below.
Android: Developed by Google, this is an open source operating system that runs on the majority of new phones.. Android has a robust apps store called Google Play filled with Google services. Visually, it’s similar to iOS, but adds customizeable homescreens and widgets which show things like the weather. The main issue with Android is that because it’s open source, manufacturers like Samsung and HTC often modify its design and functionality, sometimes to the detriment of usability.
BlackBerry: If you’re hooked on BBM or love physical keyboards and small screens, BlackBerry may be for you. The OS is made by Canadian company Research in Motion and helped kick off the smartphone revolution years ago, but has had difficulty keeping up lately. Most BB devices have slower hardware and lack some of the core amenities that Android and iOS offer. BlackBerry 10 will supposedly fix most or all of these issues, but we don’t know enough about it yet.
iOS: The iPhone is the only phone that runs iOS and Apple plans to keep it that way. The iPhone kicked off the app revolution and in its fifth year, it is still the standard upon which all other phones are measured. If you own other Apple devices or enjoy services like iTunes, the iPhone may be a good option for you. It doesn’t allow as much geeky tinkering as Android does, but it has a clean, simple design and an app/game catalog that bests all other mobileplatforms.
Windows Phone: After the failure of Windows Mobile, Microsoft started from scratch and built Windows Phone, which is based almost entirely on the Zune MP3 player interface. Windows Phone is the only OS to employ a new type of interface. Instead of relying on a grid of shortcuts and a notification tray, Windows Phone uses Live Tiles, which are half app icon, half widget. Everything on your homepage can display moving information or graphics.
3. Choose a wireless carrier
Unless you’re buying an iPhone or Galaxy, your carrier will determine your phone selection. And, for some of you, switching carriers is not an option. Here in the US, our wireless carriers rule everything. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are the major networks, but some smaller regional carriers and MVNOs (networks that piggyback on one of the majors) like Boost, Ting, MetroPCS, US Cellular, and Cricket exist, but hold very small market shares (and generally their phone choices aren’t the best). Every carrier has a different set of phones for sale and its nearly impossible to buy a phone on one carrier and take it to another.
Below is a quick rundown of the big four. Obviously, coverage will vary depending on where you live. We recommend you find a way to test each network at your home and place of work to ensure it’s a good fit for you. Try inviting a friend over, or asking your neighbors or coworkers.
AT&T: AT&T has the largest variety of phones available. If you’re interested in Windows Phone or smaller handset makers like Sony and Nokia, this is the place for you. AT&T doesn’t seem to turn ideas down. It was also the first, and is still the premiere, home for the iPhone. AT&T has a 4G LTE and 3G HSPA+ network and is attempting to catch up with Verizon in LTE deployment. AT&T, along with Verizon, dominate the market.
Sprint: Sprint is struggling and has been for several years now. It hasn’t been able to keep up with AT&T and Verizon when it comes to high-speed 4G network deployment, despite being first to deliver 4G (WiMax) through its partnership with Clearwire. Sadly, the service’s availability hasn’t moved beyond major metropolitan areas. An LTE network is in development. Sprint has the iPhone and many Android devices, but a very limited selection of Windows Phone and BlackBerry handsets.
T-Mobile: It’s hard to say where T-Mobile is right now. It does not have a high-speed LTE network or the iPhone, so that makes it a tough choice for many people. After AT&T failed to take over T-Mobile, the little carrier did get a big $4-6 billion dollar present and some valuable spectrum that should help it begin building out LTE service. T-Mobile is the most flexible carrier where it relates to plans and prices, and its Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry selection is solid.
Verizon: Verizon is the most expensive carrier, but it’s also the only carrier in the US with a nationwide 4G LTE network capable of delivering speeds faster than most people’s home Wi-Fi. It’s phone selection is also good, though it does tend to brand everything with the name ‘Droid’ and drench its phones in greys, reds, and blacks. Verizon has the iPhone, Android devices, and many BlackBerry devices, but it is curiously lacking Windows Phones.
4. Features you’ll want in your phone
When you get down to choosing your phone, there is no shortage of choices, but you cannot trust most employees at stores to know what they’re talking about or to steer you in the right direction. We recommend that you bring along a geeky knowledgeable friend of yours, if you have one, but if not, here are a few features that you will want in your next smartphone.
Nice screen: Read our guide to choosing between AMOLED and LCD. Both are nice in their own ways. Be sure to pay attention to the resolution (you want at least 800×480 pixels for a great experience). If you can, find a phone with a 720p or 1280×720 pixel resolution. That’s top of the line. Anything with the word “Retina” in the title and manufactured by Appleprobably won’t let you down either.
Dual-core processor: We recommend a phone with at least a dual-core processor, as it will have a longer shelf life than a phone with a single-core CPU. Single-core phones are cheaper, and some OS’s like Windows Phone and BlackBerry don’t offer dual-core devices yet, but if you have the option, go with dual-core or even quad-core. You’re not buying a phone; you’re buying a tiny PC.
4G LTE: If you are on a carrier that supports 4G LTE, then make sure you get a phone that supports the feature (and gets good battery life, unlike the HTC Thunderbolt). AT&T and Verizon currently support LTE, with Sprint and T-Mobile beginning to roll out their networks. You may not feel that LTE is important now, but remember that you won’t be getting a phone for two years. By then, everyone will be on super fast 4G networks except you. 4G is worth the jump. To get an idea of speed, take a peek at our picks for the best 4G phones.
Up-to-date OS: If you’re buying an Android phone, you want one withAndroid 4.0 or a clear date when an upgrade will arrive; If you’re on Windows Phone, make sure it has Windows Phone 7.5; If you’re buying a BlackBerry, make sure it’s a BB7 device; and if you’re buying an iPhone, make sure it’s a 4S, or at least a 4. Don’t buy a 3GS. You’ll regret it, much like our ownMolly McHugh. Someone send her a better phone.
A good camera: Take a few test shots with your phone. Compare them with the iPhone 4S. If the phone you’re choosing just can’t measure up, then that sucks because even the iPhone’s camera ain’t that great. You won’t always have a DSLR with you when something cool happens, but you will have your phone. At least have one capable of taking a good picture. Currently, HTC, Samsung, Nokia, and Apple are leading in cameras.
Bloatware: Be careful of bloatware or altered features, especially if you’re buying Android. For example, on the LG Revolution last year, Verizon and LG chose to remove all of the Google services from the phone and replace them with Microsoft Bing. As much as you may like Bing, this decision hampered the usability of Android and would have made your life hell at one point or another. The cleaner your device is, the better.
Battery life: Ask about this or look it up. The difference between a phone with great battery life (the Droid Razr Maxx) and a phone with poor battery life (Droid Bionic) is night and day. Battery life only gets worse with time. If your phone cannot hold a charge all day when you buy it, it’s going to be much much worse in 12-24 months. If possible, get a phone with a removable battery, so you can buy a spare or swap out a defective battery.
Size: Make sure you can hold it. A small screen is annoying, but if you buy something like a 5.3-inch Galaxy Note because it’s hip and the kids are doing it, make sure you’re not going to tire of having a massive phone in the next two years. Trends come and go, but you have to drag this piece of technology around with you all the time. Make sure it’s something that will actually fit in your pockets.
MicroSD: Having a microSD slot is not required, but it is nice if you like to listen to a lot of music, podcasts, or want fill your phone up with other items. A phone with at least 8GB of internal storage is also recommended, but if you’re buying a top-notch phone, expect 16-32GB of internal Flash storage. Space is good to have.
5. Pick a service plan
There are an endless variety of plans and wireless carriers modify them every month with some new gimmick (see: Verizon’s Share Everything plans). Below are our basic recommendations for someone with a smartphone.
Talk: We recommend paying for as few minutes as you have to. Carriers often include night and weekend minutes, but the truth is that we just don’t talk on our phones as much as we used to. We use them as much for browsing, email, GPS, and texting. Most carriers offer 450 minutes for $40/mo as a minimum. If you can find a way to pay for less, then do it.
Text: Texting costs carriers nothing, but they charge an arm and a leg for it. We recommend a moderate plan for $10 a month or less. Many people are moving toward Facebook chat, Google Chat, iMessage, BBM, and other chatting programs, which eliminate the need for texting. If these options sound good to you, maybe skip a texting plan all together.
Data: Here’s the tricky one. You’re going to want at least 3GB of data, but we wouldn’t recommend paying for much more, due to the extreme price. Most of these plans are about $30/mo. If you’re on Verizon, make sure to wait until they do a promotion to offer at least 4GB for $30 because the normal rate is 2GB. T-Mobile and Sprint do not institute bandwidth caps, but T-Mobile does throttle the speed of heavy users.
Hopefully this cell phone buying guide has helped you in choosing a phone. If you want some additional recommendations, check out our many Best Phones guides. We update these frequently. Here are links to a few: Best Cell Phones, Best Android Phones, Best BlackBerry Phones, Best Windows Phones, Best AT&T Phones, Best Sprint Phones, Best T-Mobile Phones, Best Verizon Phones.